This Day in Jewish History

1930: Harvey Milk, U.S.'s First Openly Gay Elected Official, Is Born

Though he was in office for less than a year before being assassinated by a fellow city supervisor, Milk made his mark as an inspiration to gay people nationwide to stand up for their rights.

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May 22, 1930, is the birthdate of Harvey Milk, one of the first — if not the first — openly gay elected officials in the United States. Milk was elected to the board of supervisors in San Francisco, in November 1977, and was assassinated, together with Mayor George Moscone, on November 27, 1978.

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Harvey Bernard Milk was born in Woodmere, New York, on Long Island, the younger of two sons, to William Milk and Minerva Karns Milk. William was the son of Morris Milk, who had immigrated to the U.S. in 1896 from Lithuania, and opened a department store, Milk’s, in Woodmere two years later. Morris Milk was also one of the founders of the area’s first synagogue, Congregation Sons of Israel.

Harvey attended Bay Shore High School, where he played football and was known as something of a class clown, and following that, Albany State College for Teachers (today the State University of New York, Albany), from which he graduated in 1951. Harvey apparently acknowledged his homosexuality to himself while still a teenager, but it would be many years before he was ready to present himself as gay publicly.

Milk joined the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, serving as a diver on the submarine rescue ship USS Kittiwake, and later as a diving instructor. He was discharged in 1955, as a lieutenant, junior grade.

He worked briefly as a teacher, at Woodmere High School, then as an insurance actuary, and also as a stock analyst at a Wall Street investment firm. He also worked on the stage crew of the Broadway musical “Hair.” His politics at the time were conservative: In 1964, he volunteered for the losing presidential campaign of Sen. Barry Goldwater.

In 1972, Milk and his then-partner, Scott Smith, decided to move to San Francisco, which was not just a center of American counterculture in general, but, specifically, a city drawing very large numbers of gays and lesbians. The couple settled in the Castro district where, the next year, they opened a photo shop, Castro Camera. He was a popular merchant, and the store became something of a gathering place for neighborhood residents.

The rapid growth of the gay population elicited pushback from some of the city’s politicians, including its mayor, Joseph Alito, and fairly quickly, Harvey Milk, who had in the meantime come out of the closet, decided to run for the San Francisco city and county Board of Supervisors, the local equivalent of a city council.

The local gay establishment perceived him as an upstart, and withheld its support from Milk. Instead, he had to begin at the bottom, which in his case meant losing election to the board twice before winning handily in November 1977. He took office on January 9, 1978.

Though he was in office less than a year, Harvey Milk made his mark as a coalition builder, as a savvy politician, and also as an inspiration to gay people nationwide to stand up for their rights and demand equality before the law. He worked closely with George Moscone, who was elected mayor in 1975 and, initially, also had a good relationship with fellow supervisor Daniel White, a former police officer and firefighter. When Milk changed his position on an issue in which White was invested, however, the latter became his sworn enemy.

Early in November, White, who was having financial difficulties, resigned his seat on the board of supervisors. Within days, he changed his mind — but Moscone was unwilling to reinstate him to the position. On November 27, the day the mayor was scheduled to appoint White’s replacement, White entered city hall with a revolver. In succession, he shot and killed, first Moscone, then Milk.

During his trial, in 1979, White claimed that an excessive intake of junk food the night before the killings had caused him to suffer from “diminished capacity.” The jury accepted his defense, and convicted him of voluntary manslaughter of both men, rather than murder. In 1985, a year and a half after his release from prison, White killed himself.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen